reuben j . strayer

happiness 2000

excerpted from the LLM journal

During my sophomore or junior year in college, I wrote a paper for a philosophy class where I concluded that "it is both the freedom to make a choice and the choice based solely on reason itself from which happiness necessarily follows." I crafted what seemed at the time to be an elegant argument based on Aristotelian notions of happiness and got a great grade on the paper. The obvious question that my energetic but careless youth neglected is whether or not those who have the greatest freedom to choose are the happiest. The subsequent years answered that unasked question as I watched my friends graduate from college and decide what to do next. Until that time, many of our newly-degreed souls had never made a decision of any import; we had followed the well-trodden paths of academic, athletic, social, musical, and whatever other sorts of achievement our parents selected for us. As this crossroads approached, some of us made the decision to see how long we could follow this same path and pursued professional school. This group (which includes me) is notable only in that we met graduation day and summer vacation with the same enthusiasm of previous years. Come fall we would be back in school, the same school we fell out of the cradle into, the only life we knew. We were envied by many of the second group who for whatever reason thought they should stop paying and start earning money, who approached the end of May with varying mixtures of excitement and apprehension. I further divide this second group into two groups: those who had to earn money to pay for groceries and those who didn't. Those who did had to get a job, so they got a job. Largely they were not satisfied with this job and they complained about it. Naturally they formed groups, often divided into singles groups and couples groups, that, after work, would get together to do singles or couples things as well as complain about their respective jobs. There are not so many in the second subgroup, the group who graduated without the need to support themselves. By my 1995 paper this small privileged group had the strongest grasp of happiness as they had unlimited choices; indeed they could do whatever they wanted without regard for the need to pay bills or the burden of choosing a career to last the rest of their lives. I'm sure you've guessed how the fared: they are miserable. They are directionless, they are bored, they are lonely.

We are happy when we are satisfied with our life story, when we are proud of our past and especially when we feel that we are headed in the right direction. When we make decisions about our future, we use the need to support ourselves as the scaffolding on which we hang our choices. Exploring the Caribbean Islands for a few years is not an option because there's no money for that, so we only imagine paths that include an income. This need to support yourself is quite a filter, as it excludes nearly every potential course of action. So when we think about our life trajectory we think about it with respect to this filter, something like: "Well, I'd rather be exploring the Caribbean Islands right now, but, given that I have to have a job to pay the bills, I'm doing all right." And we are happy.

Without the filter, the options are unmanageable, and those lucky few not burdened with the need to support themselves can not manage the options. They think about their life trajectory differently: "I could explore the Caribbean Islands if I wanted to. Maybe I should do that. It sounds like fun. But it doesn't sound like that much fun, and I don't really feel like going. I wonder what's on TV." These fortunate members of the financial upper crust find no joy in life because life poses no obstacles for them. Happiness comes from the obstacles.

We don't want choices. We think we want choices, we think, "When I make a bit more money I'll be able to get the motorcycle I've been dreaming about," or "When I move to Manhattan I'll have the night life I've always wanted," but we don't really want the extra choices, we want to be prevented from having these choices. When I ride my motorcycle to school, I often imagine that I am riding not a 1983 Honda Sabre (without side panels, turn signals, a functional suspension, etc.) but a brand new BMW RT1100 equipped with 120 horses, heated handgrips, lean angle sensor, and so on. I dream that in a few years I'll be able to afford it. The thought of riding the BMW RT1100 makes me happy and I arrive at school in a great mood. If somebody gave me a BMW RT1100, would riding to school be as satisfying as in my daily dream? You bet your ass it would be. For a while. In a short time, though, that dream would be replaced with another; maybe not a better motorcycle but something. The BMW RT1100 dream has made me happy for five years, a BMW RT1100 would make me happy for five weeks if I didn't kill myself with the 120 horses.

The need to put food on the table is the most powerful hurdle we use to nourish our dreams, but there are many others. One of the best is having children. What limits your options more effectively than a two year-old? You can't do anything with a two year-old, so, "yeah, I'd rather be writing a novel, but I have this screaming two-year old and there's no way I can write a novel until he grows up a bit. But let's see, the main character will have this horrendous birthmark and I'll describe how people respond to him, it will be brilliant commentary on our appearance-obsessed society. It'll be a best-seller."

The ancient geniuses recognized this effect and created religion. So much grief I would have been spared if I believed that having sex before marriage would incur the wrath of an all-powerful deity. No sex, no alcohol, no pork, no coveting your neighbor's wife, no speaking on Sundays, no blood transfusions, no eating during daylight hours this month, no abortions, no dancing, and if you don't spend most of your free time studying this book I wrote I promise you will regret it come afterlife.

According to this idea of hurdle happiness, the happiest among us should be the imprisoned, the handicapped, the slaves, the impoverished mother of nine. Where they fall on the happiness scale I don't know, but they couldn't find any less joy in this life than my privileged, bored friends. Achieving a goal provides momentary satisfaction, but to be prevented from achieving your goal, to dream of your goal and strive for it, this sustains us.

From Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus:

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor...

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

We don't want to expand our civil liberties nearly as much as we want to fight to expand our civil liberties. We don't want a rainforest nearly as much as we want to scream when another thousand acres are cleared. We don't want safer working conditions nearly as much as we want to picket. We don't want the government to know that we won't stand for protecting the interests of big business at the expense of the peasant farmer nearly as much as we want to boycott Chaquita bananas. We don't want to have sex with the beautiful girl sitting across the bar nearly as much as we want to exert all our energies in pursuit. We don't want a happy life nearly as much as we want to die trying to build one.




A related New Yorker article: Page 1 Page 2 Page 3

A related New York Times Magazine article